Can the President Win China's Support on Iran?

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In between a festive 21-gun salute on the South Lawn and a well-choreographed working lunch for 200, complete with Nashville bluegrass band, President Bush plans to sit down with Chinese president Hu Jintao in the Oval Office to discuss international security issues. Topic A, White House aides say, will be Iran.

The U.S. and some of the Western Europeans want China to support U.N.-imposed sanctions against the rogue regime until it shuts down its uranium enrichment facility and other nuclear activities. As one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China has always opposed sanctions, but White House officials insist that Bush won’t be wasting his breath.

"The Chinese have come a long way on the Iranian situation," one senior Administration official said in a briefing earlier this week, "in part because of the irresponsible statements made by the Iranian president" that Israel should be wiped off the map.

Perhaps. But China, like Russia, still largely opposes economic sanctions as a matter of geopolitical principle, and it continues to view the U.S. diplomatic moves in the Middle East and Asia with a great degree of wariness. But that's only part of the equation. If you do the numbers — and Washington, Beijing and Tehran certainly have — China needs Iran as much as Iran needs China.

According to a study released in February by the U.S. Department of Energy, China, the world’s second-largest consumer of energy (after the U.S.), is importing 48% of the 6.5 million barrels of oil it uses per day. China buys 16.8% of its imported oil from Saudia Arabia and 13.8% from Iran, making the country China’s second most important supplier.

China’s hunger for energy is growing more ravenous by the day, the study said; by 2025, the DOE estimates that China’s demand will more than double, to 14.2 million barrels of oil per day, and its imports will more than triple, to 10.7 million barrels per day. Even though China is aggressively diversifying its sources of supply, DOE says, by investing in Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Sudan, Iraq, Peru, Azerbaijan, Sudan and Indonesia, Iran is still likely to figure as one of its most dependable suppliers of oil and gas.

Bush won’t go so far as to ask Hu to give up Iranian crude, officials say. That, after all, would probably be a pointless request. But he will press Hu to use China’s vast purchasing power as leverage for the good of the international community.

The White House is concerned, says Richard C. Bush, director of Northeast Asian policy studies at the Brookings Institution (no relation to the President), that on Iran "China will be not a responsible stakeholder but a free-rider, a big country that enjoys the benefits of the international system while letting other great powers do the heavy lifting."

As a senior administration official put it earlier this week, "Some have said that China takes a rather mercantilist approach to these situations. We've got to have a better dialogue with the Chinese about what their international responsibilities are in situations like this. They can't just see it from a dollar-balance sheet point of view."

Whether Bush’s arguments persuade Hu probably won’t be apparent until early May, when the U.N. Security Council is expected to convene on the Iran issue. At that time, diplomats from the U.S. and like-minded European nations plan to push a tough resolution demanding that Iran abandon its nuclear ambitions or face sanctions. U.S. officials aren’t counting on the votes of China and Russia, but if the pair merely abstains rather than exercises its vetoes, the resolution is likely to pass.

If, however, China and Russia signal vetoes, which is by no means out of the question, the Bush administration and its European allies will likely move to Plan B. For the moment, that means trying to assemble a so-called coalition of the willing, in which nations will be asked to chill political and trade relations with Iran in order to deepen the regime’s isolation.